While the primaries consume everyone with their endlessly circular debates about policies and scandals, one aspect of a successful presidential administration gets no love. There are good reasons for this, ranging from a desire not to offend potential future networkers who can offer a job to simple ignorance about how necessary an effective bureaucracy is, but it is still glaring. The most important aspect of the election of a new president isn’t what a candidate’s ideas are — those are always going to be constrained by Congress, the other party in power, and practicality — but rather their staffing choices.
There is a powerful case to be made that Barack Obama’s biggest failure as a president is not in any decision (the decision to intervene in Libya), not any doctrine (leading from behind), any sweeping law (Obamacare), or in any sort of naive effort (the reset with Russia), but rather is in his staffing decisions. Especially on foreign policy issues, President Obama’s staff is where he failed.
Over the last several years there has been a lot of hand wringing about the concentration of decision-making in the white house: the size of the National Security Council has exploded, many high level policymakers at the departments feel cut off, demoted to mere implementers instead of planners or deciders. There are a number of structural reasons for this but it has also been a choice: put simply, Obama picked the wrong staff and relies on them too much.
Think of the diplomatic outreach to Cuba. It is telling that Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, didn’t do the outreach. It is even more telling that the assistant secretary of state for the western hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson, wasn’t involved, nor was the (acting) deputy assistant secretary for South America and Cuba, Alex Lee. Rather, Obama sent a personal adviser on Latin American issues to do the initial outreach, along with his de facto viceroy, Ben Rhodes (a former speech writer who now wields tremendous power as a deputy director at the NSC).
Obama did not rely on his functional experts to do this work, the people who would have to mobilize the enormous apparatus of government to accommodate any big change in policy; he went to personal, trusted associates whom he knew would always defer to his judgment. His staffing decisions had the effect of cutting the State Department out of statecraft (at a speech last year in Cuba, John Kerry made it a point not to acknowledge Rhodes’ work while praising Obama’s other adviser, a subtle but unmistakable snub).
More prosaically, Obama has made choice after choice that belie a worrying ignorance of the power that good staff can have. Hillary Clinton is criticized for the vast patronage and crony network she commands, but that network was able to rapidly staff the State Department in 2009; in contrast, John Kerry, who does not command the same network, had senior level nominated positions languish empty for months, sometimes up to a year (I remain baffled as to why he never tapped his many vanity projects, associations, and board memberships to fill out those ranks, and yes I am saying this having worked at one of his vanity projects for a few years).
At defense, Obama decided to first just sort of coast along with the Republican who had filled the post beforehand; eventually Gates moved on. Then he decided to send in the political aparatchik Leon Panetta, who had muddled his way through the CIA, to try to fight off sequestration instead of planning for it in a rational and orderly way (which created enormous upheaval). Then, Obama decided to tap another Republican, Chuck Hagel, who was not on the same page as himself and who blew basic policy questions during his nomination hearing. It wasn’t until this last defense secretary, late into Obama’s tenure, that he settled on a man, Ash Carter, who has the right mixture of expertise, knowledge, skills, and perspective to keep the lights on.
When you look at these sorts of staffing cockups (Obama has never, I don’t think, hired an effective chief of staff who has made things run more smoothly), it makes sense that so many of them write burn books when they retire from government. It isn’t because Obama’s ideas are bad, it is because he has done a very poor job managing his staff — whether hiring the wrong people for the wrong job, or promoting from within just to reward loyalty absent any consideration of skill, to hiring a ton of academics to join agencies without moderating their expectations of what government service is really like.
So looking forward to the potential presidential candidates, it is worth examining where their staffing picks might come from. This is where things get worrying: revolutionary candidates who say they hate Washington just won’t hire good staff. But the people who do know how to field a deep bench of effective staff are also boring: people don’t like Hillary Clinton for many reasons, but one of them is that she doesn’t excite many people. JEB! and Marco Rubio are fairly bland as candidates, but they also demonstrate deep engagement with the various tiers of officials who are needed to make things run effectively.
This is not an endorsement for any one candidate. It is, however, a plea to look a bit beyond the sexy reality TV aspect of the campaign to investigate just how a candidate would govern: if they would hire good staff or if they’re just throw a bunch of wrenches into the machinery and assume everything will function normally.